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Clinton Asked to Protect Reach

by Dan Hansen
Spokesman Review, June 1, 2000

Babbitt says Columbia River stretch should be national monument

Three decades of battles over the Hanford Reach reached a head Wednesday when Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt recommended a national monument centered on Washington's longest undammed stretch of the Columbia River.

The announcement was praised immediately by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and Gov. Gary Locke. Vice President Al Gore called it "a welcome step in our long-term effort to restore salmon in the Pacific Northwest."

"This is a momentous day for me and a lot of other people," said Rich Steele of the Columbia River Conservation League. He opposed damming the Hanford Reach in the 1960s and has been fighting for federal protection ever since.

Babbitt's proposal would include the 51 miles of free-flowing river north of Richland. It would include 200,000 acres of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, which is pierced by the river.

The land already is a national wildlife refuge, although the status has always been officially temporary. The monument would be managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

President Clinton has the authority to create national monuments without congressional approval under the 1906 Antiquities Act. He has angered some Western lawmakers by invoking the act on previous occasions -- most notably in 1996, when he created the Canyons of Escalante National Monument, comprising 1.7 million acres in Utah.

Clinton said Wednesday he will carefully consider the requests.

"Each of the areas recommended today represents an exceptional, irreplaceable piece of America's natural and cultural heritage," he said in a statement.

The Hanford Reach proposal, along with three other national monuments Babbitt proposed Wednesday, will likely receive a similarly hostile reception. Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., recently warned Babbitt against creating the monument.

"Such a move would prove yet again that the Clinton-Gore Administration believes the federal government knows better than Eastern Washington citizens how to make decisions affecting their way of life," Gorton wrote in a May 15 letter to Babbitt and reporters.

Likewise, commissioners for the three counties surrounding the Reach remain strongly opposed to monument status. They supported a 1997 bill from Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, which would have given local governments control of the Reach and opened portions of the land to private development.

"I think that the majority of our constituents do not believe that there should be federal oversight of the Reach," Grant County Commissioner Deborah Moore said.

Moore said commissioners fear they'll lose $300,000 the federal Department of Energy pays each year in lieu of local property taxes.

On Wednesday, during a conference call between Babbitt and county officials, "we stressed the need for local decision-making, not just input that can be ignored," Moore said.

It's not clear whether that will happen, she said. Babbitt's proposal calls for a local advisory committee to help write a management plan.

Steele said it's time for the counties to concede they'll never control the Reach and start cooperating with federal officials on writing a management plan.

"We all know what local control means," he said. "Local control means that they can develop the land."

Environmentalists and many scientists warned that development, including irrigated farming, would cause increased erosion of the White Bluffs, fragile cliffs that line the eastern edge of the river.

In recent years, ground water has caused sloughing of the cliffs, which rise 300 feet over the river and turn pastel shades at sunset. In one spot, a slide is deflecting the river into an island that is rich with archaeological artifacts. Erosion is biting away big chunks of the island.

Together with the Army's Yakima Firing Range, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation is the largest remaining piece of the shrub-steppe habitat that once covered 10 million acres in the Northwest. Sagebrush and dry grasses dominate the land, surviving on less than 10 inches of rain a year.

During a three-year study of Hanford, the Nature Conservancy found 30 previously undiscovered species of insects and two species of plants that have been found no where else in the world. Scientists noted such rare birds as sage sparrows, sage thrashers, grasshopper sparrows and loggerhead shrikes.

The Reach itself is the last stronghold for Columbia River fall chinook salmon, which have lost most other spawning grounds to dams.

Several proposals to dam the Reach died because damming would have flooded nuclear reactors. As recently as the 1980s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed dredging the river so tugs could push barges farther upstream than Pasco.

Federal studies during the 1990s concluded the Reach deserved preservation under Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., first introduced legislation in 1993 to provide that protection; the bill was scuttled by Hastings and other Northwest Republicans.

Dan Hansen
Clinton Asked to Protect Reach
Spokesman Review, June 1, 2000

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